Family, the State and War

by Professor Kimberly Hutchings

Conventional accounts of the history of international thought date recognition of the significance of private/ public distinctions for understanding international politics from the latter quarter of the twentieth century, for example, in books such as Jean Elshtain’s Women and War (1987) or Sara Ruddick’s Maternal Thinking: towards a politics of peace (1989). In this respect international thought is, as so often, figured as rather behind the curve, catching up with the work of feminists in other disciplines. When we think of the preoccupations of IR in the early to mid-twentieth century, we think of Waltz’s famous ‘images’, in which human (read male) nature, states and the international system are constituted as key sources of explanation and normative judgment.

For women international thinkers, however, it has never been so easy to overlook the importance of the organization of intimate relations and how these matter for big picture questions about the state and war and vice versa. Contra Waltz, the individual (man) does not exist in glorious isolation as bad, good or malleable, but is always in relation to others, including, of course, women. This does not mean, however, that women international thinkers from the early to mid-twentieth century interpret the significance of intimate relations in the same way. Some of them, such as Jane Addams (1860-1935), clearly prefigure the arguments of Ruddick. Others, however, such as Eslanda Robeson (1895-1965) and Emma Goldman (1869-1940) have a different story to tell.

In her entertaining piece “If Men Were Seeking the Franchise’, Addams adopts the standpoint of women in charge of families and households to poke fun at men’s standard arguments against women’s suffrage. Addams’s argument creates a parallel world in which women have had the vote and men have been denied it, and contrasts that world with the aggression and waste characteristic of politics as usual.

First, could not the women say: “Our most valid objection to extending the franchise to you is that you are so fond of fighting – you always have been since you were little boys. You’d very likely forget that the real object of the State is to nurture and protect life, and out of sheer vainglory you would be voting away huge sums of money for battleships, not one of which could last more than a few years, and yet each would cost ten million dollars; more money than all the buildings of Harvard University represent, although it is the richest educational institution in America”.  (Addams 1913)

Underneath the fun is a serious argument that the male ‘public’ world needs to learn from the caring and prudential virtues and values embedded in the female ‘private’ one. These virtues and values, when translated into the public sphere give rise, amongst other things, to pacific foreign policy, regulation of dangerous industries, investment in education, and reform of the penal system. Addams’s argument works because the family is defined as inhabiting a separate sphere, one in which the logic of state and war does not, or ought not to, enter.

As with Addams, Robeson frequently points to the ways in which family and household management provide lessons for state and international politics. In Robeson’s case, however, rather than being based on a public/ private distinction, her position relies on the denial of that distinction and the assertion of a strong continuity between the quality of familial, national and international relations. In response to a question from Pearl Buck about how Americans have come to lose ‘our sense of human relationships’, Robeson answers:

Maybe we never had it. We began in this country with slavery, remember. It’s impossible to develop human relationships, or to keep them if we had them, under slavery. Slavery itself is a violation of human relationships, and sets up false standards. (Buck and Robeson, 1950, p.33)

Robeson is clear-eyed about the ways in which raced and gendered international political and economic relations produce and are produced by not only the bourgeois mother but also the utter destruction of any realm of privacy or intimacy for enslaved, exploited and dispossessed women. Rather than a space for nurturing caring relationships, the private sphere in capitalist conditions is the breeding ground of racism and sexism. Thus although on the surface Robeson may sound as if she is following Addams’s lead, she is in fact doing something radically different. For her what is needed is not the exporting of a particular set of values from a distinct private sphere to a public one, but the building of all human relationships on the basis of democracy and equality. In this context the family is a crucial site of world politics because it is the context in which people are inducted into human relations, well or badly.

It is a common error to consider international affairs as remote, in a rarefied intellectual field. Actually international affairs are merely an extension of domestic affairs, which in turn are merely an extension of family affairs and relations with neighbours. (Robeson, 1958, p. 35)

Addams and Robeson both see the family, and within this women and mothers, as potentially playing a significant role in transforming state and world order. Goldman, in contrast, sees the family only as a key site of oppression, and is deeply suspicious of the ‘myth’ of women’s moral superiority, or the idea that they carry distinct values into the public sphere.

The insatiable monster, war, robs woman of all that is dear and precious to her. It exacts her brothers, lovers, sons, and in return gives her a life of loneliness and despair. Yet the greatest supporter and worshiper of war is woman. She it is who instills the love of conquest and power into her children; she it is who whispers the glories of war into the ears of her little ones, and who rocks her baby to sleep with the tunes of trumpets and the noise of guns. (Goldman, 1911 Chapter 9)

For Goldman the family is not a bulwark against state and war, but a key component of state power. A central aspect of this is the control of women’s sexuality and reproduction.

The defenders of authority dread the advent of a free motherhood, lest it rob them of their prey. Who would fight wars? Who would create wealth? Who would make the policeman, the jailor, if woman were to refuse the indiscriminate breeding of children? (Goldman, 1911, Chapter 11)

The family is a site for the reproduction of capitalism and war not only because it literally reproduces the population, but because it produces men and woman as puritans and patriots, disabling their capacity to think and act as individuals. Family relations oppress women, but women are also complicit in their oppression, particularly middle class women such as Addams, who embrace the task of regulating other people’s lives. Goldman dismisses the campaign for women’s suffrage as a struggle for ‘the “privilege” of becoming a judge, a jailor or an executioner’. If one is to revolutionise the world then woman must embrace her own freedom.

Her development, her freedom, her independence, must come from and through herself. First, by asserting herself as a personality, and not as a sex commodity. Second, by refusing the right to anyone over her body; by refusing to bear children, unless she wants them; by refusing to be a servant to God, the State, society, the husband, the family, etc., by making her life simpler, but deeper and richer. That is, by trying to learn the meaning and substance of life in all its complexities, by freeing herself from the fear of public opinion and public condemnation. Only that, and not the ballot, will set woman free, will make her a force hitherto unknown in the world, a force for real love, for peace, for harmony; a force of divine fire, of life-giving; a creator of free men and women. (Goldman, 1911, Ch 9)

Whatever one’s views as to Addams’s, Robeson’s and Goldman’s arguments, they were all drawing attention to the importance of the relation between intimate and international relations well before Enloe reminded us that the ‘personal is international’ (Enloe 1989). Does this matter for those of us working on these issues today? Arguably, it does matter in two ways. First, the way we tell the story of feminist IR tends to perpetuate a teleological narrative through stages from ‘add women and stir’ to more sophisticated decolonial or queer feminist perspectives. This is a narrative that just does not stand up once we look at the actual history of women’s international thought in 1913, never mind in the 1980s (see Hemmings 2011). Second, in their substantive claims, all of these thinkers underline the ways in which the exclusion of ‘family’ or the ‘private’ from the examination of ‘state’ and ‘war’ disables our capacity to understand or change the world around us.


Jane Addams (1913) “If Men Were Seeking the Franchise”, Ladies Home Journal (June). Available at:

Pearl S. Buck and Eslanda Goode Robeson (1950) American Argument (London: Methuen & Co.)

Jean Bethke Elshtain (1987) Women and War (Chicago: Chicago University Press)

Cynthia Enloe (1989) Bananas, Beaches and Bases: making feminist sense of international politics (Berkeley: University of California Press)

Emma Goldman Anarchism and Other Essays, 1911. Available at:

Eslanda Goode Robeson (1958) “Women in the United Nations”, New World Review, Vol. 26 (March): p.33-35.

Clare Hemmings (2011) Why Stories Matter: the political grammar of feminist theory (Durham: Duke University Press)

Sarah Ruddick (1989) Maternal Thinking: toward a politics of peace (Boston: Beacon Press)

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